The circus continues
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - August 14, 2018 - 12:00am

The Senate hearings on electoral reforms that have been going on  are  not quite done. The word “reform” usually invokes the idea of improvement. However, what we saw in the hearings seemed to be going in the opposite direction.

It has been quite a packed agenda that discussed points of improvement for absentee voting, rates of political propaganda, and many others, but the highlight of the hearing was, of course, on the alleged cheating at the 2016 national elections, specifically on the vice presidential race wherein defeated candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. claims that Vice President Leni Robredo cheated. Leading that claim was Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto, who revisited a privilege speech that he gave on March 6 and 14 of this year. In those speeches, Sotto denounced alleged anomalies in the transmission of votes using the Vote Counting Machines provided by Smartmatic.

What followed was a long-winded back and forth tussle between the senator and representatives of the global tech company. And while I am not one to decide which claims were fact and which were fiction, there was one thing that I found to be truly distressing.

It became apparent that several people obviously allied with the Marcos camp were using the hearings as a forum to sell what they were touting as a “solution.” They were pushing for a hybrid election system which, to me, is pretty much a euphemism for manual elections.

Again, I don’t know how these people define “reform” but in my book, taking a step back is incompatible with the concept. 

Those of us who are old enough to have experienced a manual election system know that there are many things that can go wrong in such a process that is so prone not just to human error, but woefully, to outright, intentional human intervention aimed at altering the actual results of an election.

The introduction of the automated election system in 2010 was a huge step forward. It hastened the process from every single point of access – from the actual voting, to the counting, to the transmissions of results. It may not have been perfect, but that’s the thing about modern technology – there’s always something to improve upon. But going back to manual is most definitely not an improvement.

Perhaps, one thing that can shed light into the many shadows cast is to make public a Comelec report that former executive director Jose Tolentino mentioned in the hearing. The aforementioned report was about a hybrid electoral system called Precinct Automated Tallying System (PATaS), which was tested in 2016. And it allegedly failed in so many key points, according to Comelec insiders. If this report was submitted to the hearing, perhaps it could guide our senators into making an informed decision.

As for Smartmatic, yes, it has had its share of controversies, especially here in the Philippines where every losing candidate and their uncle will most likely claim that they were cheated. But that’s precisely the point: regardless of who provided the tech, these claims will always happen. Why? Because that’s the way it is with Philippine politics. But should we let that stop us from getting the best available system and the most competent provider? I say No.

Now, please do not misinterpret this as an endorsement of the embattled tech company, but I did some checking on Smartmatic. And according to my research, it seems that Smartmatic is now the most sought-out firm in the world when it comes to electoral systems.

There was news that they are currently creating the Voting Solution for All People (VSAP) system for Los Angeles county in the US. The VSAP is part of an effort to accommodate the county’s diverse electorate. “We are extremely pleased to be taking this important step forward in delivering on our commitment to modernize the voting experience in Los Angeles County and to lead in the development and implementation of a non-proprietary, publicly owned voting system that is responsive to the needs and behavior of our electorate,” said Dean Logan of the county’s registrar of voters.

Aside from LA County, Smartmatic also successfully conducted a referendum in a county in Norway, using the much-touted blockchain technology that eliminates reliance on servers. The system had this unique feature that allowed the citizens of the Norwegian county of Finnmark to cast their ballot online, from the comfort of their own home. We can only wish that we had that here in the Philippines.

And speaking of blockchain technology, the company currently heads the blockchain research undertaking codenamed Project PRIViLEDGE which is funded by the European Union under its Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. The project aims to improve security and privacy in Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT, the formal name of blockchain) and their applications (in elections among many others). Internet data says the results from Project PRIViLEDGE are demonstrated through four ledger-based solutions, one of which is said to be Verifiable Online Voting.

It’s pretty obvious that we already have a provider that is globally recognized and competent, so it’s not far-fetched to think that, maybe, they are not the problem. I’m not saying that Smartmatic is irreplaceable, but if we are to replace it, shouldn’t we be going for something better and not something worse?

Unfortunately, whether Smartmatic gets retained or replaced with something better, or possibly something worse, the decision is really up to what certain segments of the political spectrum like to call as “a continuing circus.” The only thing that we can do right now is to be vigilant.

I am not learned enough to make an opinion about the technical details of our electoral system, but I do wish  the senators  in the panel can  base their decision on what is better for our country, and not to suit the orders of any whip-cracking ring masters.

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